Researchers Claim Biological Test For Sex Doesn’t Exist

Researchers Claim Biological Test For Sex Doesn’t Exist

Advocacy and activist organizations goose statistics in their favor. The National Organization For Red-Haired Pickpockets is bound to arrive at a figure higher, and perhaps much higher, especially if donations are being sought, than one put out by an disinterested firm, like Pew. Everybody understands how sides keep score.

What, then, is the fraction of “intersex” people in these once-United States?

Ask the Intersex Campaign for Equality and they’ll tell you 1.7%. That 1.7% is one of those figures that travels the world, which all repeat, which many assume is true, but whose origin is forgotten. Other common roving numbers the supposed pay “gap” between the (normal) sexes, and the fraction of climatologists who are assured the last chance to act was yesterday.

According to a scholar with the apt name of Sax the 1.7% comes from Anne Fausto-Sterling. In the Journal of Sex Research (2002, 39(3), 174-8), Sax writes that Fausto-Sterling’s figure “attracted wide attention in both the scholarly press and the popular media.” But—there’s a big “but”:

Many reviewers are not aware that this figure includes conditions which most clinicians do not recognize as intersex, such as Klinefelter syndrome, Turner syndrome, and late-onset adrenal hyperplasia. If the term intersex is to retain any meaning, the term should be restricted to those conditions in which chromosomal sex is inconsistent with phenotypic sex, or in which the phenotype is not classifiable as either male or female. Applying this more precise definition, the true prevalence of intersex is seen to be about 0.018%, almost 100 times lower than Fausto-Sterling s [sic] estimate of 1.7%.

Klinefelter syndrome is when males (which are not females), have extra X chromosomes. Turner syndrome is a defect in the chromosomes of females (which are not males), which causes various maladies such as impaired ovarian function. Late or nonclassic congenital adrenal hyperplasia can affect females (which again are not males). Et cetera.

With the more accurate number cited by Sax, and given a population of 327 million, there are about 59,000 true intersex individuals in the once United States, rather than the 5.6 million suggested by advocates.

Now examine this graph issued by the advocacy magazine Scientific American, which wrings its hands over the difficulties in testing for sex. Testing sex is done in sports where cheating has been known to occur. (Open the SA graph in another window to follow along.)

The graph presents a thin sliver of individuals at the left representing normal woman, and the same thin sliver at the far right representing normal men. The normals thus appear to be relatively few, dwarfed in comparison to our great and rich gender diversity representing the acreage of those in the middle, which the magazine labels Intersex.

Turner syndrome, which isn’t as Sax says isn’t intersex, is called intersex by SA. Other departures from health are similarly mislabled or, rather, misclassified. Examine for example the CYP21A2 gene mutation, which results in “Enlarged clitoris, fused labia, short vagina; normal ovaries, uterus, cervix.” This describes an unfortunate woman which nobody would confuse with a man. The mutation leads to “Elevated levels of male hormones”, which is to say, levels of hormones more typically found in (some) men.

What might have escaped your attention in that last sentence is the key piece of philosophy. We are able to say these are “Elevated levels of male hormones” because we know these are levels found in males, and we know these are found in males because we know what males are.

Before we come back to that, examine the 45X/46XY mosaicism entry. According to one paper, about “95% of 45,X/46,XY fetuses will have normal male genitalia, although there will also be a significant risk (27%) for abnormal gonadal histology.” So we have unambiguous males most of the time. Yet SA is concerned that these men can have their genitals removed or “modified to look female.” The same effect can be had with a dress and lipstick at far less expense.

SA‘s chart, no matter how you look at it, is highly misleading.

Let’s Test

The fraction of people who compete professionally in sports, such as in the Olympics, is, we can guess, about 0.1% of the population, or about 327,000 people. That’s probably high, but it is conservative for what we’ll do with it. All athletes are older than, say, 18, and younger than, say, mid 40s. This is about, rounding up, 40% of the population. The number of athletes is thus about 131,000 people, which is likely high. Let’s suppose we’re including all sports.

This makes the rough number of true intersex athletes about 24. In the entire country. And that assumes intersex people become athletes at the same rate as normal people, which is likely not true given these people suffer different maladies, but is conservative.

Now suppose we’re in charge of testing for sex at the Olympics. A DNA test will be accurate in almost all instances (given their built-in limitations, of course). Not all 24 intersex athletes will try to enter the Olympics, and of those who do most won’t try to “cheat” in the sense of pretending to be like the sex they are most unlike.

We are down to a mere handful of individuals, and a very, very small problem if testing is our goal. So small it can be ignored almost always.

Enter so-called transsexuals, who are people of one sex who are deluded into believing or who are pretending to be people of the opposite sex. Assuming intersex people are not this group, there is no ambiguity of the sex of these people. Their sex is what they say it isn’t.

Cheating here is thus by default. Many men who are not women claim to be women so that they can compete against women. The opposite cases can occur, but with the advantages of cheating so obviously less, there is little point.

Now it is telling there are no research program investigating how to tell real men from among women, but the opposite program does exist. And for the obvious reason.

Even though deluded people cheat, DNA testing is accurate (to the level of the test accuracy). A cursory look can, as we all know, deceive.

Roger Pielke Jr. wrote in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics that

For more than a half century, sports officials have looked to science to provide a clear distinction between men and women for purposes of determining who is eligible to participate in women’s athletic competitions. However, the science of sex provides overwhelming evidence that there is no such clear biological demarcation that differentiates men and women.

Pielke examines testing using testosterone levels and convinces the reader it is too error-prone to be of use. Indeed, he claims any test is too difficult, as we’ll see. In a tweet he pointed to the Scientific American chart as part of this of “overwhelming evidence” of the difficulties in testing.

His solution:

So then, how should sports organisations draw a sharp line between men and women for purposes of competition from the complex palette of biological sex and socially constructed gender, and the complex interplay between the two?

The answer seems obvious: they shouldn’t.

Some observers have come to a similar conclusion and have recommended a policy of ‘anything
goes’, in which an athlete simply determines his or her gender, and that is that. This approach has the feature of respecting the dignity of the athlete but presents some practical obstacles.

It needs to be said the dignity of a man claiming to be Napoleon does not suffer from informing him of his delusion.

In the article about a delusional man who thinks he’s a woman, “Stuck on the sidelines: A transgender powerlifter fights for the right to compete“, Pielke is quoted as saying “There’s no simple or even complex biological test you can apply that tells you who’s a man and who’s a woman.”

That is false, even absurd. It is true no assay is without any error, but mankind has been doing a splendid job without the assistance of modern science in determining a person’s sex with extremely high assurance.

What’s A Man?

In a tweet, Pielke quotes approvingly Alice Dreger who is, he says, a “scholar of ‘sex testing'”.

Dreger said “Humans like their sex categories neat, but nature doesn’t care. Nature doesn’t have a line between the sexes. If we want a line, we have to draw it on nature.” This is ignorant. It still takes two to tango, a fact which Dreger can verify with her parents.

Pielke continues in his paper (p. 11) “There are countless ‘objective’ biological criteria which could be used as a litmus test of ‘women-ness’, such as a height of less than 2 m…What measurement and science cannot do however is relate the variables to the ‘very essence of the male and female classifications’. Absent an unambiguous biological sex demarcation between male and female, that ‘essence’ is a social construction.”

Ignoring the scare quotes, we return to the key error. It is impossible to pretend to be a female unless you know what a female is. Therefore there is an objective essence of female and an essence of male which everybody knows.

The same mistake Pielke makes can be seen in this example. How many legs do men have? The answer is known to all. Yet, of course, some men have fewer than the requisite number because of a mishap or, as with intersex, because of a genetic defect. That some men accidentally have fewer than two legs in no way detracts from the essence, which is objective and insists on two.

Pielke commits the fallacy of nominalism, which claims all things are given an arbitrary, “socially constructed” labels. It is amusing to note that we only see the fallacy when it is applied to sexual activity. It’s a good bet Pielke would not quaff a stein of arsenic under the belief his body’s reaction to the medicine is “socially constructed.”


  1. Anon

    One trouble with measures of “maleness” and “femaleness”–especially applied to people who are born in one sex and later think they are the other–is that sex identity boils down to cartoon measures and dismisses totally any notion of shared humanity.

  2. Michael Ozanne

    At least we will have the spectacle of feminist, lesbian and trans groups tearing lumps of each other for public amusement… look what happened to poor Martina…

    As you say nobody cares about women passing for men. WADA won’t approve them taking synthetic androgens and without those they’ll get hammered in all but the skill-only events.

    It’s men passing as women that will yield all the fun, and let’s be honest there just aren’t enough cases to give the data to design a fair handicapping scheme. Either the would be women will give it up because the biochemical mountain is too high to climb. Or if it isn’t high enough women athletes will breakaway from the current body and impose their own criteria,

  3. Ken

    Swyer Syndrome.
    XY male chromosomes pair in an animal that for all appearances is female. And with little help can even get pregnant.

    There are other biological oddities like that, and even weirder, which make gender ambiguous often enough.

    The “trick” is dealing with such realities, not deluding oneself they don’t really exist, or, that some over-extrapolated viewpoint is wrong on all points. It’s not that oddball research or reporting is necessarily right or wrong on all counts, but is usually partly right or/and partly wrong, or, just poorly explained. Too bad some cannot deal with getting to agreement on what’s reality….

  4. Yep, Ken; said animal is biologically male by genotype. It looks and may act biologically female phenotype due to accidents. Which one to promote depends. Generally, in the past, resolving the ambiguity by enhancing the female phenotype was the preferred method; but these people should know the actual facts and not be pawns in a power play game. Have a Y, you’re genetically male. If you don’t, you’re genetically female. Generally, the genotype should win. The extremely rare cases (way less than 1%) should not determine the general policy.

  5. Brian (bulaoren)

    Is it possible to know, just by looking, if a penis is male or female?

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